The Revolution that Wasn’t (Yet): Reflections on Iran’s protests two months out

I recently returned from a brief stint doing some additional data collection at my field site in Mashhad, Iran’s second largest city close to the border with Turkmenistan and Afghanistan. The city has been in the news lately because it was the starting point for protests that engulfed much of the rest of the country over the course of roughly two weeks at the end of 2017 and the beginning of 2018.

In my previous post on Iran’s protests, I criticised what I understand to be readings of Iran’s diverse and complex society through the catchall prism of “authoritarianism vs. the people”. While I remain hesitant about the capacity of ethnography – which is invariably micro in its scope – to comment on such broad issues, given the paucity of material  from people who are actually “on the ground”, I want to offer at least some reflections on the discussions I had with my informants, and the “sense” of the present situation that they communicated to me.

The transmogrification of an Islamist vision

In his 2013 work, Asef Bayat speaks to what he argues is Iran’s coming “post-Islamist” future, a shift in national discourse that moves from a focus on citizen’s obligations as per the traditional ‘Islamist’ model, towards an appreciation of the role of religion within the context of support for individual rights and freedoms.  Post-Islamism, he suggests, is both a condition and a project; the former being a stage where “following a phase of experimentation, the appeal, energy, and sources of legitimacy of Islamism are exhausted even among its once-ardent supporters” (2013:8). Bayat’s analysis certainly represents the experiences of a not insignificant part of Iran’s youth bulge. Among a number of my informants, Islamism as an ideological project had ceased to be convincing as a model of political and social organisation. Whether they had become non-religious, or simply no longer believed that state and society were best mixed, the pulse of a popular orientation in favour of disestablishment was tangible.

However, I take issue with the broad insistence that such a project is universally exhausted, as Bayat himself says, “even among its once-ardent supporters”. In my experience, it would be a fundamental misunderstanding of the attitudes and behaviours of committed supporters of the Republican order to suggest that they have lost belief in the Revolutionary cause.

What I sense is rather the ongoing attachment of a vibrant body of state supporters who hold to ideologies that are remarkable in their mutability. If I was to pinpoint one particular form of ideological transmutation, it would be the increasing nationalistic tone that ‘Islamists’ in Iran adhere to. In a process not altogether different from the Chinese Communist Party’s adoption of an increasingly nationalist discourse, so, too, are Iranian Islamists increasingly committed to a image of the country not so much as an exporter of global revolution, but rather as a vision of Iran as a powerful regional force taking its rightful place. Iran’s Islamic nature remains fundamentally wedded to that image, even if world revolution has diminished.

The limits of violence

During my initial fieldwork in Iran in 2015-16, among my informants who hoped for a change of government, there was a widespread belief that such change would necessarily be gradual. The desire for and expectation of a second revolution that would lead to social upheaval and overthrow of the ruling order had largely been extinguished. As such, the violence and destruction of property that took place during the bout of protests in 2017-18 surprised me. This time protesters showed a readiness particularly to destroy both property, and to mete out violence against the police. In conversations with my informants, though, doing so marked a fundamental break with what was understood as acceptable behaviour. While they remained open to what they understood as ‘legitimate’ protest, the destruction of property and violence against the police was writ instead as dangerous agitation.

Dissent transforms

Correspondingly, the shape of public dissent in the aftermath of the protests has changed[1], shifting from outright confrontation, to more ‘passive’ forms of critique. This has presently taken on a form most obvious in the increasingly visible movement against the mandatory hijab.

Dubbed “the girls of revolution street” [dokhtaraan-e khiyabaan-e enghelaab], their defining image is that of a woman atop a service box in the middle of the street, her headscarf removed and hanging from a stick thrust out in her hand. Pictures of a number of women performing the same act have circulated widely across social media platforms commonly used in Iran like Telegram.

The longevity of such movements though is always in doubt. State forces have already moved to crack down, with two sheets of metal welded together to form an angular surface now preventing anyone from standing on the original service box that started the conflagration. Whether movements like “the girls of revolution street”s will continue into the future, and whether the government will be increasingly disciplinary in its response, remains to be seen.

The outlook

This brings me finally to the question of an outlook for Iran, more generally. Let me frame this initially by saying that an any attempt to portend the future of something as large, Byzantine, complex, and obscurantist as the Islamic Republic seems like a fool-hardy endeavour. Nonetheless, this has not stopped countless others from doing so, usually portenting its swift demise.  If the Islamic Republic does collapse for some reason, Iran watchers will doubtlessly drown readers in pages of ink pinpointing precisely when things started to go wrong, and when they figured it out (or when they didn’t).

Certainly, though, Iran faces some significant dilemmas – social, economic, and environmental. Perhaps most pressing is the out-of-control pollution which is suffocating major cities, including and perhaps especially the capital, Tehran. Broader environmental concerns are felt across the country. Arriving in Mashhad in January, the first thing most of my colleagues remarked upon was the absence of rain over the past two years and the unseasonable warmth of winter that year – “in the place of winter, spring has come” they would say. Widespread drought, acutely manifest in images of the now virtually empty Lake Urmia, or the barren Zayande-Rud river, is putting pressure on farmers, and adds to a pervasive sense that the country is in trouble.

Likewise, as many others have noted, economic concerns rank high on the social radar. While at least partially the result of middling oversight, some of this is also a case of poor expectation management by the government. As literacy, increasing longevity, and access to basic services have spread across the country, so, too, have expectations and demands about the relative quality of life. Additional to this is the widely perceived problem of corruption – both in the form of bribe taking, or in the nepotistic cultivation of relations referred as “partibazi”.

While social issues, particularly relating to the country’s implementation of the sharia’, like the wearing of hijab, definitely constitute an element in discontent, I do not want to exaggerate their impact – something common among foreign and Iranian dissident observers. I still remember vividly the words of an informant who, when asking him about his vision of a freer Iran, responded adamantly, “we don’t need more freedom, what we need is less corruption”. While such a view is not obviously universally transposable, I think it taps into a certain social current.

As such, if we are to talk about issues of state stability and the durability of Islamist governance, what I believe remains critically for pro-Republican forces is not so much about managing the expectations of liberal elements of the population who remain fundamentally opposed to the core illiberalism of the regime. Rather it should be ensuring the ongoing material improvement and upliftment of the lives of socially conservative elements of the lower and middle classes. Having relied on these sections of society as a bulwark of support over the past forty years, the protests of 2017-18, which were comprised mostly of lower middle class and working class men, should be a wakeup call to those within the halls of power: failure to meet this group’s needs constitutes the most significant threat to the Republic’s future.

[1] A caveat to this is, however, the very recent conflict between the Sufi gonbadi dervish order which saw substantial violence on both sides.

[Image by Alicia Wilson]

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